The Heresy of Faustus Socinus

Delivered at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church

February 19, 1996

Rev. Craig C. Roshaven

Copyright 1997. All Rights Reserved.

This morning I want to tell you a story.  A story of a man who, 

perhaps more than any other single person, is responsible for our 

faith, the religion we call Unitarian Universalism.  A man who 

planted many of the seeds that would ultimately flower into what we 

now call the Enlightenment, the age of reason.  A devout and 

pietistic man who believed in the religion of Jesus rather than the 

religion about Jesus. His story is not only of great intellectual and 

moral courage, but one of great faith and faithfulness.

The Renaissance is the term we use to refer to the rich period of 

development that led Europe from the Middle ages to modern times. 

Emerging first in Italy, encouraged by the ruling families and even 

some of the popes, it was marked by an interest in human potential 

and expression.  It led to the flowering of the arts and sciences. In 

Florence, a major city in Northern Italy, it particularly flowered 

under the patronage of the Medici family who sponsored the 

Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci. Da Vinci, by the way, because of 

the universal nature of his genius, came to be called a Renaissance 

man.  In what we call the Middle Ages, the period from the end of the 

Western Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance, it was 

generally forbidden to explore works of art, literature, and 

philosophy from the classic period of Greece.  The rediscovery of the 

ancient Hellenic sensibility with its emphasis on human capacity, 

expression, and freedom provided the spark that began the 


But all times of great cultural change have their perils.  As one set 

of sensibilities is replaced by another, as the old order loses its 

appeal and is replaced by a new order, great changes occur.  We know 

how hard it is for any generation to understand the next.  Imagine 

how wide the generational gap must have been as the Renaissance with 

its emphasis on human capacity, dignity, and individual expression 

came to replace the Middle Ages with its emphasis on obedience and 


The Church, for there was only one church in Europe at the time, 

suffered.  The rising secular tide confused and demoralized the  

bishops,  priests, and monks and corruption and worldliness became 

widespread.  Sins were forgiven--for a price.  Vows of celibacy and 

poverty were openly broken.  Everyone knew the church needed to be 

reformed.  Martin Luther, a German priest, began by dramatically 

nailing his proposals for reform  to the door of the church in 

Wittenburg.  His protest eventually resulted in the loss of almost 

all of Northern  Europe to the Roman church.  Later, the Society of 

Jesus, the Jesuits, were formed to set new standards for the 

priesthood and root out corruption within the church of Rome that 

remained, but, they were too little, too late.

Martin Luther's revolt, which resulted in Lutheranism and eventually 

all the other Protestant, i.e. protesting churches, there are today, 

was a revolt against corruption.  However, it was not a revolt 

against theology.  Indeed, one of the early reformers said, "We have 

no difference with Rome on a single point of dogma."  Even today, the 

Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Catholics are very close in theology.  

But in Italy, where the renaissance began, the reformers sought to 

change not the governance  of the church but the theology of the 

church.  Initially, before Luther's protest and the subsequent loss 

of Northern Europe, some questioning was tolerated by the church 

leadership.  But, after the reformation, the authorities in Rome 

reacted severely by brutally silencing any questioning of church 

authority or  theology.  The inquisition began during this time.  

Heresy was a crime punishable by death.  This is where our story 

begins.  Faustus Socinus was born in Siena, a University town near 

Florence, in 1539.  The Inquisition began in 1542, when he was three 

years old.

Faustus was born into a distinguished family of politicians, lawyers, 

and professors of law.  His uncle, Laelius, a renowned writer and 

theologian, was friends with all the prominent Protestant reformers 

of his time.  Laelius had traveled widely through Europe, and, 

despite his theological innovations, was even approved of by John 

Calvin in Geneva, the same John Calvin who would just a year or two 

later, in 1553, burn Michael Servetus at the stake for the heresy of  

disputing the trinity.

Faustus worshipped his uncle and sought to follow in his footsteps, 

even though it was becoming much, much more dangerous to question 

existing dogmas.  Accordingly, Faustus wrote most of his books 

anonymously, in order to avoid persecution.  But that was scant 

protection, for it was hard to conceal authorship in so small a world 

of scholars.  From the beginning, Faustus began to think and write 

dangerous heresies.  His first book, which he wrote when he was but 

23, boldly declared that Jesus was divine, but was not God.  

After that first book, he settled into what must have been a very 

comfortable life indeed.  He became the secretary of Isabella, the 

sister of the Duke of Florence.  Remember this is the Florence of 

Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.  He comfortably spent the next 

twelve years in that remarkable court.  But then, he did something 

remarkable.  He left.  He left of his own accord.  There was no ill 

will between Socinus and his patron, the Duke.  Indeed, the Duke 

arranged to forward the revenues from Faustus's estate to him so long 

as Faustus would continue to write anonymously. Even the great Duke 

of Florence couldn't afford to be associated, even distantly, with a 


Almost all of Europe during this time was a dangerous place for those 

who questioned religious dogmas.  Heretics were being tortured and 

killed not only in Italy, but in Spain, France, England, Holland, 

Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland.  But there was one place that was 

safe.  Poland and its neighbor, Transylvania.  In 1568, Francis 

David, the Unitarian Bishop of Transylvania, had convinced the Prince 

Sigismund, the ruler of Transylvania, to allow religious freedom.  

"Faith is a gift and cannot be forced."  was the essence of David's 

reasoning.  But, tragically just three years later in 1571, the 

Prince died.  Steven Bathori of Hungary became the ruler of 

Transylania and of Poland and though he didn't persecute anti-

Trinitarian heretics, he did encourage the Jesuits, who did their 

best to stamp out these and other heretics.  Even with the presence 

of the Jesuits though, Poland and  Transylvania were the safest 

places in Europe for those who would question existing dogmas.  It 

was there that the reformation that Martin Luther started, was able 

to continue.  Faustus Socinus was the pre-eminent leader of this, the 

reform not just of the governance of the church, but of the theology.

Socinus arrived in Poland when he was 40 and remained there until his 

death in his 60's. While he was there, the anti-Trinitarians of 

Poland became unified under his intellectual leadership and would 

eventually became known as Socinians.  During this  time he would 

marry and have a child, but, tragically,  his wife soon died.  

Socinus was also often persecuted by those who were enraged by his 

writings.  Indeed, once when he was ill, a group of students broke 

into his home, burned all his manuscripts and threatened to burn him 

as well unless he recanted his heretical belief that Jesus was not 

God. He refused and was rescued, almost accidentally, by a 

sympathetic professor.

What kind of man was he? He was first and foremost a scholar.  

Although he was not formally educated, he was fluent in Greek, 

Hebrew, Latin, French, German, and Polish.  One of his early works on 

the Bible was so well written that it became a standard text used 

widely for 200 years.  He was a gentleman.  His morals were above 

reproach and he distinguished himself by his unfailing courtesy.  

Unfailing courtesy was remarkable in an age when even the great 

Protestant leaders, Luther and Calvin would use vile street language 

when arguing with their opponents.

Finally, what were his beliefs? First, he and the other Socinians 

believed in religious tolerance.  They also believed that all 

religious authority depended on applying reason to historical 

evidence, the evidence in this case being the scripture.  It was 

because they saw no evidence in the scripture for the doctrine of the 

trinity they denied it.    They also emphasized the words of Jesus as 

opposed to the words of Paul.  The sermon on the mount was their 

primary guide.  They believed that Jesus was not God, but was 

especially endowed with divine attributes of wisdom and virtue.  

Salvation is to be found by keeping the will of God as declared by 

Jesus: Love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, care for the poor, 

the sick, and the imprisoned.  In other words, follow Jesus.  

They emphasized not the death of Jesus, but the life of Jesus and the 

resurrection.  They believed that Jesus through the resurrection 

brought life and immortality to light.  They rejected the notion of 

substitutionary atonement.   That is  to say, they rejected the 

notion that Christ died for our sins and thus satisfied God's need 

for justice, for the need for someone to suffer for our sins.  They 

celebrated communion, but didn't believe that we were actually 

changed by taking the bread and wine.  Instead they saw communion as 

a simple memorial whose purpose was to commemorate Christ and to give 

thanks for his life.  They also believed that God was a loving God 

and that a loving God would not infinitely punish sins.

The most striking part of their belief, though, was their belief that 

Jesus was not God, but human.  An exceptional man to be sure, but 

just a man.  That is what we heard John Donne rail about earlier.  

They emphasized the voluntary obedience of Jesus to God.  They were 

humanists in that they believed that all humans, not just Jesus, that 

all humans could choose to obey God's wishes as revealed by Jesus.  

In other words, you didn't have to be God to be good.  They rejected 

original sin; they rejected Calvin's notion of predestination, the 

elect, and eternal damnation; they rejected the notion that to be 

human is to be depraved.  Their faith was not just in God.  Their 

faith was also in our human capacity for reason and goodness.

Although there were only 300 Socinian churches in 17th century Poland 

at the height of the movement, their influence would be felt 

throughout Europe. Socinus's books were widely distributed and read.  

The Racovian Catechism, a compilation of Socinian beliefs, was even 

more widely published and read.  Indeed, the English translation was 

dedicated to King James of England, who promptly ordered it burned.  

But despite all the official efforts to stamp it out, the thought of 

Faustus Socinus spread throughout Europe, and wherever it was 

tolerated it gave birth to new churches.  First in England and later 

in this country.

The thought of Faustus Socinus was heretical then and is heretical 

yet today.  Jesus is not God, Jesus was a man.  Salvation comes not 

from our believing that Christ's substitution for us on the cross 

atoned for our sins, but from following the will of God as revealed 

by Jesus in his sayings and sermons.  And like Jesus, we, too, can 

choose to obey God's will and be compassionate as God is 


So don't make the mistake of believing that there is just one way to 

be Christian. Most of Christianity, though wide differences certainly 

exist in terms of structure and governance, is alike in its theology.  

Socinus and his spiritual heirs, Unitarian Universalists, have a 

different way, the way not of Christ as interpreted by Paul, but the 

way of Jesus.  The religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus.  

May we, like Socinus turn from the belief in Paul's Christ and turn 

toward the God that Jesus witnessed to with his life and words.  May 

we too, seek to be followers of Jesus, doing what Jesus urged us to 

do: to be compassionate, to be inclusive, to love God and neighbor 

with all our heart, all our mind, and all our strength. 

The Heresy of Faustus Socinus Delivered at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church February 19, 1996 Rev. Craig C. Roshaven Copyright 1997. All Rights Reserved.